Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike -- brothers of one father, and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit who rules above will smile upon this land, and all people may be one people. Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.
"I think of Chief Joseph as the peacemaker. He's a man of peace. He abhors violence. He doesn't want to fight. I will fight no more forever. He was always a peacemaker. And Lord knows he was provoked. Another kind of man could not have remained in control of himself, in possession of himself. And one of Joseph's great characteristics is that he was always in possession of himself."
Twenty-five years after fighting his reluctant war with the United States, Chief Joseph was still longing to return to his beloved Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon. Twice he went to Washington, D.C., and met with presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. Whenever he spoke, he impressed people with his eloquence and his simple plea for justice.
The soldiers who had fought against him became his friends. Buffalo Bill Cody invited him to the ceremonies dedicating Grant's tomb in New York City and called him "the greatest Indian America ever produced." The white settlers of the Wallowa Valley even named a town for him. But his people's land was not returned.
Let me be a free man -- free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
He steadfastly practiced his Dreamer religion instead of Christianity, kept two wives, lived in a tipi -- and told anyone who would listen that there was no just reason he should not go home to where his ancestors were buried. On September 21st, 1904, still in exile, Chief Joseph -- Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, Thunder Rolling from the Mountains -- died from what the attending physician called a "broken heart."
"There was a lieutenant named Erskine Wood, who was the diarist of the Nez PercÚ retreat, and he came to admire Joseph greatly. And at the end of that campaign, when Joseph was imprisoned, the two men became very fast friends. And Erskine Wood sent his son to live with Joseph for two summers. And I met Erskine Wood, Jr., who was an old man when I met him, and he told me this story which I have a hard time recounting.
The second summer he was with Joseph, his father wrote to him, through the Indian agent, and he said, 'You won't be going back to live with Joseph anymore. The time has come for you to go off to school. You must change your life. Tell Joseph that you won't be coming back, and tell him that I would like to give him a present, a token of my appreciation and esteem. Ask him what he would like.'
And the boy kept the letter until it was time for him to leave, and Joseph and the boy were riding off to the bluffs of the Columbia, where the boy was going to return to Portland. And on the way, he said, 'I've received a letter from my father, and he wants me to tell you that I won't be coming back. And he wants to make you a gift. What would you like?'
And at this point, in Erskine Wood Jr.'s eyes there appeared tears. And he said that after a long mile, a silent mile, Joseph said, 'Tell your father to give me a horse.' And the boy was so disappointed that he should ask for so paltry a thing. And he never told his father. And the two men died. And Erskine Wood, Jr., said, 'I didn't know what the gift of a horse was.'"
"There are many stories in the West, and there are many stories in the United States, and none is more American than any other. But when we try to think of a common story, of a story which we invent about America, we lay that invention in the West. There's no section of the United States which is less American than any other section, but there are stories that become more American than other stories because we tell them as stories which can include all of us. It's the sense that, in a country where there's so much that divides us, there can be some experience out there which we all share. It may be an illusion -- it probably is an illusion. There is no single experience in the West or any place else. But we fight so much about those stories because those stories deeply matter -- not because of what happened in the West, but what happens right now, what matters right now. That's the important thing."
"If you think about all the various stories of betrayal in the American West, they will break your heart. But in these stories of broken hearts there is also a healing -- a joy. And that joy and that healing has come from the land itself. And I don't think we can forget that -- that the land literally brings us back to a reverential state of mind, where we realize the health of the land is the health of the people. It is about spirit. And in that spirit are the seeds of joy. And that's where I stake my claim in the future."
The Western landscape, in all its variety and drama and sense of wide open spaces, carries an enormous emotional weight -- I think not only with Americans, but with much of the world. There's always been a place, always been a place in human history, that became the repository, if you will, of all the dreams, hopes and aspirations of people. Someplace that was always going to be better than where they were.
The West still has that characteristic. It is probably the one single thing that makes it unique in American history. That a place so wide and large and various could at the same time be a single repository of so much hope.
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